Confronting Hate With Baby Steps

Jun 18, 2009 at 1:38 pm

A few weeks ago, I caught this story as it was firing up: Sacramento, Calif., morning radio hosts Rob Williams and Arnie States spent more than a half-hour making disparaging and dehumanizing comments about transgendered children on their May 28 radio show. People were pretty up in arms about it. I was among the hundreds of people who wrote letters to the station manager expressing my unwillingness to tolerate such content.—-

A few days later, the show hosts dedicated a chunk of time to discussing the issue again, but essentially failed to apologize or take any responsibility for the statements. To my cynical surprise, outrage maintained. Letters poured from every direction, a call to action from the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) got significant media attention and big-deal advertisers started pulling their sponsorship.

Bank of America’s statement on the matter said, “Bank of America is proud to be a leader in supporting diversity…This commitment to equality and diversity informs every aspect of our enterprise, including our approach to advertising.” Guitar Center’s Executive VP wrote, “It’s simple: wrong is wrong. We don’t want our brand associated with such epic insensitivity.” The show ended up spending nearly a week off the air before issuing pretty sincere-sounding letters and apology statements and putting together a fully dedicated apology show which included two transgender advocates as guest hosts.

I’m pretty impressed with the quick turnaround here, and I do want to recognize that this sort of story and outcome is the result of a lot of slow and steady social justice work that has made an impact on our culture today. Let it be one small reminder that change is not only reserved for mythic-scale leaders; that letter writing and petitions and showing up counts.

But I’m still a little concerned about what the takeaway may be. What gets to be wrapped in We-Are-The-World-isms and diversity-speak is likely just a reminder that overt bigotry is what’s not OK and kid targets are too obviously over the line. This David Letterman/Sarah Palin storm is similar — folks are enraged about the inappropriateness of making implicit statutory rape jokes about 14-year-old girls (and I’m glad), but not for derogatory comments about single mothers or women’s sexuality in general. (Remember the “slutty flight attendant” comments that went unacknowledged?)

Despite a small step forward for LGBT rights yesterday by including gay partners in benefits packages for federal employees, Obama is still way behind in campaign promises to expand rights for queer folks. Ohio shows little mainstream interest in re-examining the 2004 Ohio Constitution rewrite to limit marriage to a man and a woman, which doesn’t seem to trouble Bank of America too much. So it’s no real surprise that the Sacramento Bee’s June 9 “Transgender Advocates Going On-Air With Rob, Arnie and Dawn” online article ends with an editor’s note:

“Comments on this story have been removed, because too many people violated our policy against personal attacks.”

I can only imagine. I guess I’ll keep writing letters.